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Columbus Does Good: Empowerbus helps close the employment gap

614now Staff

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Aslyne Rodriguez is pitch perfect, though not necessarily in any sort of musical sense. Her passion for transportation innovation demands immediate attention in any room, and by the time she’s done making the case for bringing equity to employment through a tiny fleet of commuter buses, folks often find themselves singing the same tune.

But when she was handed the microphone at a gathering of stakeholders at Rev1 Ventures discussing the city’s ongoing efforts to increase economic inclusion, the set list suddenly changed. Instead of delivering her polished pitch on urban mobility to a capacity crowd, she was overcome by her own unlikely origin story. She reflected on her grandparents’ journey from Puerto Rico with only an elementary education, and welled up as she revealed her grandmother’s dream of opening a cake shop that never came to be. Raised near Youngstown, her parents both worked for the local school district—her mother a guidance counselor, her father a school bus mechanic. It was an early epiphany, realizing the parents of the kids who rode those same buses to school every day often struggled to get to work themselves, that would become the inspiration and driving force behind EmpowerBus.

Photos: Rebecca Tien

“That was a raw moment. Something came over me and I needed to tell that story,” confessed Rodriguez, founder of EmpowerBus. “There are communities with the desire to be entrepreneurs, but they don’t have the pathway. Not everyone can do a friends-and- family round of fundraising for their startup. I’m only one generation removed from coming here with limited education and not knowing the language.”

What started with a single 25-passenger bus that shuttled employees from the Morse Road corridor to New Albany has in two years pivoted to a more nimble 14-passenger model with routes throughout Central Ohio, including the recent addition of an autonomous shuttle service in the underserved neighborhood of Linden as part of the Smart Columbus initiative. It wasn’t a contract she pursued, but one that found her based on a reputation of earnest intentions in a community that can prove short on trust after decades of disappointment.

“We have been loved by the community in a way most companies aren’t. But we’re still very careful about how we use the term ‘social enterprise.’ People think, ‘Oh, you’re a nonprofit and you do good work.’ ‘No, we’re a for-profit business that wants to do good work,’” she explained. “In some circles of Columbus, social enterprises are still misunderstood. We want to grow our business, and take care of our people. It’s how we expand to serve more communities.”

Like most midsize cities, Columbus wasn’t created for cars, but evolved to rely on them almost exclusively. Half a century of urban flight only amplified our cultural dependency on single-occupancy vehicles. Recent years have seen an overdue disruption in transportation, from Uber and Lyft to scooters and self-driving vehicles. But depending on any of those to get to work, an internship, or a doctor’s appointment reliably is dicey at best and undeniably cost prohibitive. For those of more modest means, the transportation revolution is still leaving them behind, and the face of who is left out is changing.

“Everyday in America, 10,000 adults turn 65 years old. They all don’t need shared transportation, but they may be taking care of aging parents who do—and they could soon too, or may just want to opt out of driving,” she explained. “They call it the ‘Silver Tsunami’. But people are also moving back into cities, they want walkability and maybe don’t want to have or need a car.”

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The dynamics of demographics are changing all around. A relatively recent return to city centers has actually reduced the pool of potential employees for companies with warehouses beyond suburbia. Bus routes tend to cover the hours and destinations of those heading into downtown, not out of it. It’s a gap EmpowerBus closes, often cutting travel times by municipal buses in half with fewer stops, and with routes and a scope that have both expanded to bring employees in rural Licking county closer to Columbus, as well as transport employees from the Southeast side to destinations in Delaware.

“How do we get people to a job that helps them advance their lives? Workforce is still a central conversation for us,” Rodriguez noted. “Maybe they are working a job they can walk to that pays them $10 an hour, but maybe with transportation they can get to a job that pays $17 an hour with benefits and a 401k? That’s a big deal; it changes their lives.”

Mobility means more than just transportation, and Rodriguez is the first to admit her ambitions are audacious. Recent partnerships with Spectrum and Accenture will introduce an educational component to EmpowerBus during the ride with tablets as teaching tools. Second-chance employment for those exiting incarceration combined with low unemployment create a catalyst for hiring that wouldn’t happen without access to locations that are desperate for workers, but often in areas where they are in short supply.

“Smart Columbus prompted a broader conversation about workforce transportation. A lot of companies created ‘mobility ambassadors’ to discuss opportunities they wouldn’t have considered otherwise,” she revealed. “We’re also a logistics hub with a lot of manufacturing and distribution that happens here, and the market is tight. Employers are more open now to second- chance employment than they have been in the past. But how do those potential employees get to a job that allows them to restart?”

As with any startup, the future is where the rubber hits the road. Helping prospective employers identify “opportunity zones” based on their current workforce, or simply reducing the demand and cost for employee parking, illustrate the balance of creative and comprehensive solutions the company can offer— more than just in Columbus. Invitations to expand to cities elsewhere in Ohio, as well as surrounding states, show just how far and wide word has spread about EmpowerBus, its founder, and her dream. Aslyne Rodriguez moves people.

“The next step for EmpowerBus is to fulfill everything we set out to do and see what that looks like at scale. Our goal is to deliver upward mobility for all by providing dignified, reliable, on-time transportation to work, education, and healthcare,” she explained. “Expanding into another city and just scraping by isn’t a strategy. We’re a startup that has bootstrapped it so far, and we have to decide if we’re going to go big or grow incrementally. But for now, we’re investing in our people and processes, so when the time comes to scale up, we’ll be ready.”

For more information on EmpowerBus, visit empowerbus.com

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Now Streaming: Columbus entertainers find virtual ways to perform

Mitch Hooper

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As Columbus entertainers prepared for warm weather and folks returning to the bars, COVID-19 came in and put it to a halt. The bars being closed indefinitely not only impacts owners, servers, and bartenders, it impacts the performers who rely on these places as a platform to showcase their talents. When folks can't come support local entertainers, what can they do?

What if they bring their talents to them? That's what many Columbus entertainers are doing during social distancing. While "work from home" wasn't much an option before this, comedians such as Amber Falter and Ian Miller are taking to Instagram Live and other streaming platforms to perform.

The first virtual show the two did was with Alexis Nelson of BarkBox, and admittedly, they were a little nervous about not having an audience for feedback.

"I was actually scared to start," Miller said. "Jokes don’t have what I call 'standalone timing.' You need a give and take with the audience, you build it into your jokes. The thought of telling jokes without immediate feedback was terrifying."

The two said the show went great and it didn't take long for both of them to enjoy streaming their comedy. Falter quickly did another virtual show, A Hamantha and Brisket Comedy Hours, with Samantha Sizemore and Bridjet Mendy themed around dating stories via Zoom. Miller, on the other hand, started a weekly story telling show on his Twitch channel Glass Cannon Comedy.

Falter, co-host of ACLU Stand-Up For Choice, says there's even been some silver linings to streaming her comedy.

"I was joking with one of my friends that is always like, 'Hey, I'm going to make it to the show! Can't wait to see you at the show!' and then they never make it out," Falter laughed. "Now you have no excuse, honey!"

As for the future ACLU Stand-Up For Choice comedy events, Falter said she and others involved, such as co-host Pat Deering, are figuring out how to do so through streaming.

Miller said he has seen many of his shows canceled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. He had six shows slated across 13 days, all of which have been canceled. Additionally, his monthly story telling show as well as Glass Cannon's quarterly-themed shows are suspended.

"It’s been rough. There may not have been of ton of Columbus comics “paying the bills” with comedy, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt the impact," Miller said "Times are tough, and it’s really hard to have a side hustle of any kind when you know leaving your house could put yourself and other in danger."

And that's why he believes it's so important to support entertainers in anyway you can. Whether that be through a share or follow on social media, every little bit helps grow their platform.

Falter echoed this sentiment, too.

"I want this to become a source of income and I've been extremely, extremely grateful for the people that have even sent like $2," she said. "Or not even that, if they just followed me on Instagram or told me I had a good set. [By just] saying, "Hey that was really fun, thanks so much," that alone is making me super emotional."

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We Will Do It: Dr. Amy Acton is determined, not afraid

J.R. McMillan

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The announcement was shocking, even to the pool of hardened reporters gathered in anxious anticipation. On March 12, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered the closure of all schools in the state for at least three weeks to hopefully halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Illustration by Sarah Moore

With only a handful of confirmed cases, based largely on statistical models and patterns emerging from cities and countries around the world, Ohio was among the first to signal, almost prophetically, that life as we all knew it was about to change dramatically, perhaps forever.

Then skepticism suddenly turned to stunned silence as Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton stepped forward to reveal the possibility that more than 100,000 Ohioans were already carrying the virus.

But this dire presumption wasn’t delivered with cold calculation by a career bureaucrat who dithers or withers in front of the cameras. Instead, Acton did something remarkable, in real time. In her signature white coat and without a whiff of wonk, she calmly and confidently broke down the math behind the decision and the prediction, at one point comparing the delay in reliable data to the light of a distant star whose brightness we can only see long after the moment has passed.

And with that, Ohioans discovered the light of a different kind of star, and her moment is now.

Even before Acton was a household name, she was already an unlikely hero. A physician since 1994, she honed both her approachable bedside manner and public policy persona at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and as an assistant professor at Ohio State. During her brief tenure at The Columbus Foundation, Acton was instrumental in raising nearly $2.5 million in just six weeks to combat youth homelessness, blowing past every expectation. It was a philanthropic success that was also hauntingly personal.

It isn’t without irony that as Ohio businesses close their doors, many for the last time, that Youngstown’s venerated daily newspaper, The Vindicator, published its final edition this past August with an intimate portrait of Acton. Then, she was still the local homecoming queen who had beaten the odds, gone on to college, ultimately becoming the top public health official in the state.

The “grit and grace” we see today, so noted by Doug Kridler, President and CEO of The Columbus Foundation, was undeniably born of a chaotic, often tragic, childhood. Acton’s parents separated when she was just three, and in the decade that followed before reuniting with her father, she lived in a constant state of uncertainty. This included living in more than a dozen places in as many years across the country, some less desirable than others; she lived once in an unfinished basement, and even spent a winter in a tent. Only after abuse at the hands of one of her mother’s string of boyfriends did life for Acton finally start to turn around. Her father was granted full custody, and she’s never seen her mother again.

But even this backstory only surfaced in retrospect. The newspaper’s website also shut down a day after the final edition hit the streets. No likes, shares, or tweets. Only later were the archives posted online, with that closing interview receiving overdue attention in recent weeks, much like Acton herself.

“Lots of powerful souls walk among us,” noted Todd Franko, former Editor in Chief of The Vindicator. “Last August, she walked in and walked out of our office, and no one knew her. They know her now.”

Yet in darkness, there is still light, with dutiful denizens across the state tuning in daily for afternoon “Wine with DeWine.” But even that fierce following may pale in comparison to the more than 50,000 members of Acton’s entirely unofficial Facebook fan club. The conversation waxes and wanes from harrowing accounts to rays of revelry, from the testimonials of healthcare providers on the frontline of the crisis to heated debate about which actress should portray Acton in some future Hollywood feature. (For those keeping score, Allison Janney, Dana Delany, and Anne Hathaway are currently the top casting contenders.) Local apparel company Homage also honored her with a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Not all heroes wear capes.”

Even Acton herself is not above public levity amid unprecedented circumstances. A photo from a recent morning meeting in the lower level of the statehouse went viral, with staffers seemingly orbiting a laughing Acton from a safe social distance. It was a rare and candid glimpse of the loyalty she fosters among the small army she inspires, no longer
in anonymity.

Her candor coupled with compassion is at the heart of her appeal. The mother of six, one of whom offers her his own daily briefings on her online following from his home in Menlo Park, has been called “Ohio’s Mom” for the tough love that belies every escalating restriction that unfolds aimed at minimizing the worst case scenarios.

It’s the same honesty tempered with hope that won DeWine over barely a year ago. Acton neither sought nor expected to become the governor’s final, perhaps his most crucial, cabinet selection. In discussing the role with him, she offered an unvarnished, apolitical assessment of Ohio’s challenges and opportunities to improve public health, and prepare for unforeseen threats to it.

Thankfully, he hired her anyway.

The hasty cancellation of in-person voting the day before the state’s primary and extension of absentee voting by mail was deemed politically untenable, until it wasn’t. After what was expected to be an uncontested delay erupted into a last-minute legal reversal, Acton’s authority to protect citizens in the midst of a public health emergency found precedent in an obscure provision of the Ohio Revised Code from 1886 in response to an outbreak of tuberculosis. 

Now, Ohio leads the country in its response, with fellow states following suit, though not without criticism. The impact on businesses directly and indirectly is as controversial as it is unavoidable. DeWine is charged with an impossible task, desperately trying to land a plane safely, despite the fact that it’s coming apart in the air. There will be casualties, actual and economic. But reducing the former requires increasing the latter. Acton is not only his copilot, but is additionally charged with assuring passengers that they are doing everything they can just
to survive.

This is why we need Acton right now—she’s a guiding star in what often seems like an endless night. When human nature and history tend to suggest turning on each other, she’s quick to remind us that we’re all in this together. She’s the hero we didn’t know was in our midst, the same powerful soul who walked up to a podium and into our lives barely a month ago practically unknown, but who is now a part of our daily routine. When all of this is behind us, we’re going to look back on how we have changed. And when that day comes, we will surely have Acton to thank for telling us exactly what we needed to hear, when we needed to hear it, just to get through another day. We should all be forever grateful for her words.

“I don’t want you to be afraid. I’m not afraid. I am determined,” Acton famously confessed. “All of us are going to have to sacrifice. And I know someday, we’ll be looking back and wondering what was it we did in
this moment.”

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Columbus Does Good: Westerville designer creates t-shirt to honor Ruby Owens, Dr. Amy Acton

Mitch Hooper

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As Dr. Amy Acton leads Ohio's charge against COVID-19, local makers like Megan Owdom-Weitz are doing their best to say thanks.

Using the words written by Ruby Owens, a nine-year-old who made headlines for the optimistic and thankful letter she sent to Dr. Acton, Owdom-Weitz designed a t-shirt. With approval from Emily, Ruby's mother, Owdom-Weitz added the letter in addition to a sketch illustration of Dr. Acton.

"I'm so happy to have you and have hope," both the shirt and Owen's letter reads.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B-XZa4Uo8KK/

While the sales of this shirt are currently on pre-order, a portion of the money received will benefit the Ohio Chapter of the Red Cross. As a local- and family-owned business in Westerville who has been hit hard financially due to the COVID-19 outbreak, these t-shirt sales will also help Megan Lee Designs during these difficult times. The t-shirts will ultimately be completed once the two are able to return to work.

You can find Megan Lee Designs on Instagram or at her website.

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